We are honored to welcome the legendary Rita Moreno to this special issue. This accomplished singer, dancer and actress made her Broadway debut at only 13 years of age. She’s an icon who captured our hearts and graced the screen and stage since the time she was a young girl. She embodies the fountain of youth. She’s stunning; she’s proves that age is just a number. She’s engaging, spirited, a loving mother and grandmother and she’s a still working actress; for the past three years Rita has starred as Lydia on the hit series One Day at a Time. Renowned director Steven Spielberg has hired Rita Moreno for a large, newly created role in his remake of the incomparable West Side Story and he’s appointed her executive producer of the show. She lights up a stage and she will enlighten your heart.
Travelgirl: You were born in Puerto Rico and your mother brought you to America at a very young age. You were a shy young girl but despite your shyness you made it to Broadway at only 13. Did your mother encourage your career choice and how hard was it to move to America, learn English and set your sights on dancing?
Rita Moreno: My mother did encourage me. As a child I used to entertain my grandfather; it was the most natural thing in the world for me to perform for him. I thought it was really nice to entertain people and I loved the applause. I talk about my life in my book, Rita Moreno: A Memoir; it’s available on Amazon.
I came to America when I was five years old and I learned English the hard way; I didn’t know one word of English when I arrived. These were the years before the Puerto Rico diaspora; there were very few Latin kids in my school. I realized early on that I could either sink or swim, and I swam. The most natural thing in the world for me was to take dance lessons. My Broadway career started when I was only 13 years old. I auditioned for a part and got it and that was the beginning of my theatrical career. The rest, as it were, is history.
TG: How did you know where and when to audition? You were so young.
RM: In those days there was (I believe back then) it was called a pink sheet. This sheet had lists of all kinds of auditions that were available for show business people. They used to literally write down “part for Italian girl, 13 years old.” I would head to the theatre for my audition and wait in line like everyone else. I tried out and got the part when I was 13. Before Broadway, I had done quite a bit of work on radio (radio was a big thing in those days), I had also performed on religious shows. I remember The Ave Maria Hour where I played the part of Bernadette who sees visions in the grotto. I also did amateur hours on the radio.
TG: In your young years you were cast in many ethnic roles and worked for both MGM and FOX. I remember the movie The King and I; you played Tuptim, the Asian princess. How difficult was it for you in the early years?
RM: I went to Hollywood from New York City as an actress under contract with MGM. Unfortunately, the only roles I could get were native girls; maybe because of my birth name, which was Rosa Delores Alverio. The studio changed my name to Rita Moreno. After three years working at MGM, they dropped my option and I was out of a job, which is not easy when you are a mere 17 years old.
I was able to get acting jobs on television playing native girls in Westerns, which at the time were a main focus on TV. Eventually I got a contract at Twentieth Century Fox and made a couple of movies there. That’s where I made The King and I with Yul Brynner. It’s been an amazing life. I’m 87 now and that was a long, long time ago. Now I’ve come full circle; I’m going to be in the new version of West Side Story working with the marvelous Steven Spielberg, the great director.
TG: Did you have any idea West Side Story would become classic it is today? What is your strongest memory from making the movie?
RM: I had no idea whatsoever that the movie would even succeed. In fact, I remember telling George Chakiris, [who played the gang leader of the Sharks in the movie] my dear friend and my daughter’s godfather, while we were making the movie that this movie is not going to make any money. The costumes weren’t thrilling; there were no sequins anywhere. People weren’t used to the types of costumes they had us wearing. Also, the actors were singing in operatic voices; at the time no one sang in operatic voices in the movies. I didn’t think people were going to pay $5 to see the movie and that’s what a ticket cost in those days. Poor George went home very depressed that night. Here we are 50 years later; the movie was a huge, huge success and now it’s being remade and the dancing is going to be done again by two geniuses. Who knew? I didn’t realize the music would become iconic either. It was such a brave movie to make at the time.
TG: You went on to star in the film and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now the renowned Steven Spielberg has cast you in the remake; he created an original role
for you and you will be an executive producer.
RM: The story has changed only in the sense that Doc has passed on and the role now belongs to his wife Valentina. I play Valentina. I am just reading a new draft of the script now and it’s absolutely fabulous. Steven Spielberg has expanded the role and there are now four or five scenes that my character is in. Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay, which is amazing. Steven says I am the bridge to this movie. Executive producer in my case really means someone to consult. He asked me questions about the original production. If I get ideas I share them with Steven and Tony. That’s the way it goes and I am in hog heaven!
TG: You are one of only 15 people to reach the extraordinary “EGOT” status, winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony and one of only 23 to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting.
RM: I’ve just gone past that; I am a KEGOT – with the Kennedy Center Awards. I am still here and I am still performing. I am still a working actress.
TG: Which performance stands out most in your life? Which meant the most to you? What medium is your favorite?
RM: It has to be West Side Story because I won the Oscar for my performance and I don’t think people realize I also won the Golden Globe. It was a fabulous time for me. Acting is my favorite; it brings me the most joy. Obviously I have 87-year-old knees and they aren’t very good for dancing; but I do, I move very gracefully.
TG: Your career has had a very positive impact on young people. In 1971 you became part of the cast of the children’s show The Electric Company and the next year, 1972, you won a Grammy for the soundtrack, The Electric Company. You spent six years with that show. How did that experience impact your life?
RM: Wasn’t that a great show? I am so proud of my participation in that show. It taught children to read and it did so very successfully. It even taught my husband’s Jewish auntie to start reading in English. She used to watch it constantly; it was on every single day and, of course, she loved watching me on television. I did some really fun things on that show. In fact, my daughter Fernanda learned to read by watching The Electric Company.
TG: What prompted you to take a role on The Electric Company?
RM: It was very simple. I received a phone call from my agent telling me there was a brand new show that would teach children to read and he asked me if I was interested. I told him to send me some scripts and I would let him know. He sent me some sample scripts and they looked great. I was already a fan of Sesame Street. There was a risk at the time; some of my colleagues told me not to take the role because they feared I would never work in television again. My heart told me I really needed to do this because it would teach children to read. I knew these were the same people who did Sesame Street, so I knew it was going to be extremely entertaining and very clever and it was absolutely that.
TG: Looking back at your amazing career, are there special people who mentored you along the way, who made a difference in your life and encouraged you to pursue your dreams?
RM: There was no one. I didn’t have a role model because there were no role models when I was young. I had to do it on my very, very own. I would love to say yes, this wonderful person supported me but I had to stand on my own two feet. I had nobody. I did it because I was meant to do it. Perseverance is my middle name.
TG: Do you have a favorite travel destination and what places are on Rita Moreno’s travel bucket list?
RM: Yes, I want to go to Tuscany, Italy, and eat my brains out. I want to eat there until I explode. They can send my parts home. I would love to go back to Kyoto, Japan; I’ve been there. It’s an extraordinary, beautiful city.
TG: Is there one item you always take with you when you pack your bags?
RM: My makeup; the famous Moreno face is in a zip-lock bag.
TG: Do you have any sage advice for those young hopefuls out there who aspire to walk in your famous footsteps and follow in your remarkable path?
RM: I do and it’s this. You better finish your education because there’s no guarantee that you will become a working actor, let alone a star. You better have a skill that can help you pay the rent. You need a skill that will pay for your acting lessons or for whatever it is you want to do in my profession.
TG: I know several artists credit you with paving the way for them. There are so many who stand on your capable shoulders today and owe their starts to your bravery.
RM: Oh, there are lots and lots. Rosie Perez, Jimmy Smits, Andy Garcia, Jennifer Lopez are just a few. I’m honored they feel this way.
TG: Tell me about your beloved daughter, Fernanda. I know she’s the light of your life. She’s quite an artist. Would you talk about her jewelry business?
RM: My daughter makes jewelry and it’s absolutely stunning. I wear it constantly and you will see photographs of me wearing her art. She’s incredibly talented and she has a website – www.nandizjewelry.com Fernanda is my heartbeat and my two grandsons are my little beacons of light. Their names are Justin, the first born, and Cameron.